The ‘Edge of Chaos’ does not exist

On one of my web pages I have tried to describe a spectrum of complexity and this has caused me to revisit my understanding of a concept that seems to be a major source of ‘hype’ used to tout the application of complexity science to management and leadership. The concept I refer to is, ‘the edge of chaos’.  Apparently this is a place where organisations need to go to maximise creativity or self-organisation.  This is in fact complete rubbish and let me explain why.

The concept of edge of chaos was developed by Langton and Packard When looking into the complex nature of simple computational systems called cellular automata.  The idea is that there is a region of behaviour where the system is neither complex nor chaotic, but wanders between the two depending upon the nature of the system’s rules.  They identified this behaviour in some simple cellular automata that had very simple rules. Langton also carried out analysis that suggested that these generalised computational systems became capable of more complex computations around this edge of chaos and hence seeded the idea that things like self-organisation occur on this edge. However intuitive this region of behaviour may sound there are a few points we need to bear in mind.

  • The definition and analysis of the edge of chaos was carried out on discrete computational systems and no others; so its meaning is to say the least, dubious in all other contexts, including continuous social systems.
  • The conclusions drawn by Langton and Packard have been challenged by Mitchell et al[1]. So although a hypothetical concept of an edge of chaos can be defined for some types of systems, its association with self-organisation or specific types of behaviour is not proven.
  • There is no stringent definition or analytical proof that the edge of chaos exists for other types of system, or that self-organised criticality occurs at this edge.
  • The edge of chaos relies upon the system being capable of highly complex and chaotic behaviour, but I would also suggest that human adaptive systems cannot be truly chaotic (as understood in complexity science) and this is because humans do not like chaos and we will adapt a system toward some degree of localised order and predictability. So the idea of an edge of chaos as defined by Langton has no meaning.

So I am personally dubious of anyone touting this concept in the context of human organisational systems.

[1] Revisiting the Edge of Chaos: Evolving Cellular Automata to Perform Computations, Melanie Mitchell, Peter T. Hraber, and James P. Crutchfield

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